The Series
Part 1
Part 2
Photo Gallery
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

Now they also face death

Fifth of eight parts

By Douglas A. Campbell


NEW BEDFORD, Mass. - Steven Novack didn't know where his four crewmen were in the icy sea water. He only knew that, moments before, when he had ordered them to abandon the sinking clam dredger Cape Fear to save their lives, they had all been with him.

Now, in the blackness of the wind-tossed ocean, one six-foot wave after another washed over him. He was becoming disoriented. And the 37-degree water gave him splitting "ice cream" headaches.

It was about 8:05 p.m. on Jan. 8, 1999, and the crewmen of the Cape Fear were fighting for their lives.

Novack screamed and crewman Steven Reeves, 29, yelled back. They couldn't see each other, couldn't see anything. It was as if they were locked in separate dark closets. They were not alone, but for now, they might as well have been.

Before he jumped into the ocean, Novack, 36, had struggled with the zipper on his survival suit, and he had not managed to get the hood over his head. He went over the side anyway, sliding down the steel hull. When he hit the water, his bare head was dunked.

The headaches began then. And while the unzipped suit kept Novack floating, cold water poured inside. He was growing desperately cold. He needed help.

Reeves needed it more. He had failed to get into his survival suit completely, and now, fully exposed to the frigid water, his body was becoming hypothermic. If he didn't get out of the freezing water quickly, he would have less than an hour to live.

Reeves told Novack he did not have a suit on.

"Remember, man, try to be calm," Novack called back. He kept thinking of his crewman with no suit. But he was preoccupied with his own situation, worrying that if he failed to get his hood on, he would die. He fumbled with the strobe light attached to his suit but was unable to make it work.

As he emerged from each dousing wave to ride the top of the next one, Novack saw a light on the horizon, maybe the lighthouse at Cuttyhunk Island off Cape Cod.

He kept hollering to Reeves, but after some time - he couldn't guess how long - there was no reply. Then, after more time had passed, he saw what he thought were the strobe lights of other crewmen. With one hand holding his survival suit collar tight, he swam toward the strobes.

By that time, first mate James Haley, 35, had reached crew member Joseph Lemieux, 28, a non-swimmer. Both were wearing their survival suits. Haley got Lemieux to calm down, and both of them clung to a long plank that had been on the deck of the Cape Fear and that had bumped into Haley's arm in the dark.

When Novack reached Haley and Lemieux, Haley tried unsuccessfully to get Novack's strobe working. He did manage to pull the skipper's hood over his head, cockeyed so that Novack could not see.

Someone asked if anyone had heard from Paul Martin, 35, the fifth crewman. No one had. They assumed the worst.

Then the three heard Reeves call out. He sounded as though he were just five feet away. His voice was a faint cry.

"Oh, God!" they thought they heard him plead.

The three men began swimming blindly toward the voice.

It had taken less than five minutes from the first indication of trouble until the Cape Fear rolled and the men jumped in the ocean. The boat went down just two days after the clam dredger Beth Dee Bob had sunk off the New Jersey coast, also in a matter of minutes, with all four men aboard feared dead.

Steel sinks quickly. The 112-foot Cape Fear was 188 tons of steel and fuel carrying 195 tons of ocean quahogs in 26 tons of cages.

Steel ships float because air pockets are built into their hulls, making the vessels buoyant. The Cape Fear had enough air below its deck that, even with a full load of quahogs, its deck rose a foot above the water at the stern. Air filled the engine room, the spaces around the quahogs in the hold, and voids - empty spaces around the hold used for storage.

But there was a lot of heavy steel above the water line. The ramp at the stern upon which the clam dredge was raised towered 30 feet above the deck. A heavy superstructure, from which the stabilizer arms were lowered once the boat was at sea, rose equally high behind the wheelhouse.

To assure that the Cape Fear would remain seaworthy, naval architect John F. Koopman had conducted stability tests and concluded that the boat could carry 120 cages of quahogs and still recover from a serious tilt to one side.

Novack knew that Koopman's report was aboard his boat, but he had other ideas on how to test the Cape Fear's seaworthiness. There was no math involved. Rather, he relied on his 17 years of experience at sea to conclude that 130 cages made a safe load.

In this, and in his lack of any formal license to operate a boat (commercial fishermen require no operating license), Novack was like many, if not most, other clam boat operators.

For example, William Parlette, a 25-year veteran clammer and captain of the clam boat Richard M, also ignored stability letters and espoused a simple philosophy. "If I felt she was unsafe," Parlette testified at a Coast Guard hearing in February, "I'd get off it."

Parlette also believed that it would be perfectly safe to have the hold of a clam boat filled with water because it would make it more stable.

Koopman, in analyzing the Cape Fear, deduced that while some water could be carried in the holds of that boat, at a certain point well below the full mark, the vessel would be at risk of swamping or capsizing.

In the months that followed the sinkings of the Cape Fear and the Beth Dee Bob, regulators criticized the fishermen's seat-of-the-pants approach to seamanship. A Coast Guard task force called for the licensing of captains as a means of limiting the deadliness of the business.

The clammers were adamant that their ways were proven.

"They [regulators] have no experience," said Edward N. Platter, 42, captain of the clam boat Debbie & Jeanette. "They have no idea how fast trouble can come. . . . There's no book that can teach you what's going to happen in the ocean. I personally have 27 years on the ocean. The Coast Guard retires in 20 years. . . . Most of the fishermen around [Point Pleasant, N.J.] have been on the ocean for 30 to 40 years."

In the last 30 or 40 years, there had been other commercial fishing disasters. One waterfront veteran in Point Pleasant had been keeping a grim record. Thomas A. Gallagher, whose welding shop was working on the surf clam dredger Adriatic when both the Beth Dee Bob and the Cape Fear sank, tallied the sinkings on several writing tablet backboards and on crumbling old legal paper.

Until January 1999, Gallagher had noted more than 125 fishing vessels that sank off the East coast. The list only went back to about 1962, when, according to his hand printing on lined paper, the dragger Soynia went down in a storm, taking four men with it.

At least four men were still alive from the Cape Fear's crew. Three of them could hear the distinct voice of Steven Reeves, and they swam frantically toward him, only five feet away.

Then his voice went quiet, and in the dark valleys between the waves, they lost Reeves.

Now Novack, the captain, Haley, the first mate, and Lemieux, a deck hand, clung to the plank, waiting for the sister ship Misty Dawn, which Novack had radioed. The life raft that was mounted atop the Cape Fear's wheelhouse, which should have deployed when the boat sank, was nowhere in sight. Only one strobe light, attached to Haley's survival suit, was working. If they glanced at it, they were temporarily blinded.

They had been in the water a half-hour when the lights of the Misty Dawn appeared in the distance. Novack became concerned that the boat would run over them, for it shone its spotlight toward them and then away. The three began yelling.

The Misty Dawn circled to the south, putting the three men in its lee, out of the wind. Capt. John Mathis Jr. idled his engine, and Haley was able to climb aboard. Novack and Lemieux both grabbed a life ring that was tossed to them, and the Misty Dawn's crew dragged them up over the rail.

Then Mathis began searching for Martin and Reeves. Suddenly, what appeared to be a whale was directly before the Misty Dawn. It was the belly of the overturned Cape Fear. There was a screech of metal on metal. The men from the Cape Fear, who had climbed out of their survival suits, now began desperately pulling them back on.

But the Misty Dawn backed off the stricken hull without serious damage, and, with Coast Guard vessels on the way, continued its search for Reeves and Martin.

Tomorrow: The Ellie B in rough seas.

Saturday: Three men hit the water.

Sunday: Michael Hager goes back out.

Douglas A. Campbell's e-mail address is

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